The Biopunk Reader

19Apr/110

Robusting Ribofunk: Call for a Biopunk Canon, Part 2

by Wyatt Matthews

In answer to my own think-out-loud call for a biopunk/ribofunk cannon, here’s a two-cent contribution to several categories:

Short Fiction: Yann Martel’s short story--practically microfiction--“We Ate the Children Last.” I came across it this week in the recent Canadian weird fiction anthology Darwin’s Bastards. It involves pig-to-human-stomach transplants in a thick syrup of dark humor.

Cinema: As summer approaches, the blockbuster movie season might offer something. Maybe another Jude Law flick? Perhaps I’m the only one slow to notice this, but is Jude Law (Existenz, Gattaca, then Repo Men), for better or worse, to mass culture biopunk what Will Smith has been to mainstream scifi cinema over the last decade?

Music: Kool Keith’s Nogatco Rd. album (2006). It’s brilliant. Of course it isn’t punk, but then again, does punk really have a speculative nature? Metal certainly is speculative--quite often steeped in apocalyptic visions--but punk? Punk is often quite fervently grounded in realism, hence all of the lobbying for the term “ribofunk.” In short, we could all see Bootsy Collins in space, but Henry Rollins?

My own experience is that punk music turned “conservative” shortly after punk’s (and cyberpunk’s) heyday in the ‘80s. The straight-edge movement was (some would say is) one of the great artistic manifestations associated with the word “punk,” but in the same way that a literary genre becomes solidified, often to the point of cliché, so were strong rules imposed upon that style of music and subculture.

So, as counterintuitive as it may sound, the future of “biopunk” music is more likely to be in hip hop or other genres than it is to be in punk. There are glimmers of biopunk themes in the scifi-rap masterpiece Deltron 3030 (2008)--namely songs like “Virus” and “Upgrade”--but it would be great to hear more bio-specific tracks from someone who delves into speculative fiction themes like Del, Grayskul, or B. Dolan (see Fallen House, Sunken City).

Non-Fiction: We can eagerly await Marcus Wohlsen’s Biopunk: DIY Scientists Hack the Software of Life due out this month. This is one area where the default term “biopunk” again becomes problematic as a label for a mode of fiction, because it’s also the moniker for a real-world wave of gene hackers.

Whereas the corporeal side of cyberpunk was more of a form of cosplay--writers and fans donning the mirrorshades to reflect an imagined near future--biopunk actually has a real-world counterpart in the here and now. Consequently, biopunk as a literary genre may be slightly screwed, finding itself either confused with, or in the shadow of biopunk’s other form(s).

Novel-Length Fiction:

Biopunk is not screwed. Enter Katy Stauber. Katy Stauber’s Revolution World is a worthy read for light-hearted biopunk fans. The story centers upon a set of cloned quadruplets who run a homegrown gene-splicing outfit in a resource-depleted, near-future version of Texas. As the cover promises, it actually does involve ninja lap dogs and fire breathing cows, and Stauber a great job of weaving such (otherwise preposterous) propositions into a raucous, fun, and decently convincing storyline.

The characters seem a bit typecast at first, but end up being quite endearing. Like Smurfs, each girl has her own “flavor.” For instance, there’s the engineer sister with the purple hair and Pippy Longstocking striped socks (kind of like a steampunk Punky Brewster). Of course there’s also the square business-minded sister, etc. and then we have our Bridget Jonesy protagonist.

As I started into this novel, it at first struck a free-association chord with Jillian Weise’s The Colony--simply in that it’s inventive, bio “chicklit” by a southern author. When stepping into Revolution World, you have to be okay with biopunk as a backdrop for nerd love. Katy Stauber is not unlike a more rough-and-tumble Plum Sykes--a guilty pleasure--but with scuffed, steel-toed boots and a degree in biochem.

If this review were a poem, it go something like:

I have read
the genetically-enhanced Plum
that you wrote

Forgive me
it was delicious
so sweet
and yet so damn twisted**

Predecessors: Okay, since tracing the lineage of biopunk is at least as important to the creation and collection of new material, so, to this end, I’d like to add James Blish’s “pantropy” to the biopunk family tree. In his 1957 collection, “The Seedling Stars,” Blish envisions humans genetically modifying themselves to be able to adapt to life on other planets.

Sure, cyberpunk eclipsed scifi’s obsession with the stars, replacing it with the inner space of the digital realm, and biopunk continues that journey inward to the very threads of life, but…well, there’s still plenty of space for space in biopunk isn’t there?

On that note, a last note: Biopunk owes a vital chunk of its DNA to Rudy Rucker. The Ware Tetrology is awesome: an epic full of organ swapping and meat robots on the Burroughs-Dick-Lem-Pynchon tip.

**http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15535

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